Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum vs. Hearst Castle

I had the pleasure of visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston this past weekend. As I walked around and mulled over this massive art, sculpture, book and ephemera collection, I couldn't help but compare it to the Hearst Castle, which is by all means more grand in scale (although Isabella's museum is nothing to sneeze at), but somehow lacks the heart.

Isabella clearly purchased these items to bring the arts to the United States, but she didn't do them under the guise of bald acquisition, as Hearst seemed to have done. She had the genuine intent of showing the works publicly so that they could be shared with everyone. She was also close friends with John Singer Sargent and Henry James, living amongst her artistic friends and displaying their work in her home. Hearst also hung out with and had affairs with celebrities, but I never had the sense that Hearst was as deeply involved in the life of his contemporaries as was Gardner.

Hearst's and Stewart Gardner's tastes definitely overlapped (consider the medieval tapestries) and both liked to design rooms in period styles. But there's something about the extreme opulence and dare I say stylistic vulgarity about Hearst's Castle that suggests that this was a man throwing money around, pillaging various antiquities so that they could be displayed in a home that would make him appear that much more powerful. The relationship among the display of the antiquities themselves was secondary.

Isabella, on the other hand, was just as much an acquirer, but she was far more of a curator, and her artistic eye and design sense is completely evident in the placement and relationship of all objects and rooms. It's likely it is no accident that the marble throne in the garden where she preferred to sit is flanked to the right by a Roman child's sarcophagus, perhaps a reminder of her only son who died at less than two years of age. Her huge collection of Madonna and child iconography suggests a very personal impetus for some of her choices.

The care with which she constructed her faux-Venitian palace is evident in ever corner. For example, a large swatch of her favorite dress hangs below Titian's Europa, suggesting a link between herself and the passion depicted in the work. It's clearly impossible to have known her, but as my mother pointed out, just going through the museum and noting the beautiful and personal arrangement of objects is enough to suggest that to know her through her curating is to love her. How could a person not be charmed by her bottles of sand she personally collected from the Sahara?

Isabella Stewart Gardner's museum is the primary labor of her lifetime, which begs for me the question: what makes a life? One could ask the same about Hearst, and although reading about him is fascinating, it doesn't personally inspire me in any particular way.

Recently I've begun to struggle with culture--a malaise has set in for me despite the fact that one of my most central lifelong interests has been cultural criticism. I link it to my advancing age as I trudge toward midlife and invariably ask, is this all there is? Is another minute of TV really worth it when we have so little time? Is my life just draining away as I participate in culture passively? How many damn Picasso paintings can I look at and still give a crap?

It has been a while since I've seen anything that moved me or was inspirational. (There may be irony there--can only a person who has had the luxury and fortune of seeing so many things become bored in this fashion?) Thankfully, Isabella Stewart Gardner's passion woke something back up in me--something that everyone can also intuit on display in this museum.

Our love can and does live beyond us. Our life's work does amount to something. It may not wind up in a museum of our own making, but we're here and what we do matters. I read an op ed piece in the NY Times today by David Brooks ("It's Not About You") that suggests that life isn't about finding ourselves and going out and doing something. It's about recognizing problems that need to be solved, and in dedicating oneself to such problems, one finds out who they are.

No doubt Hearst has left a legacy, but I'm less inspired by any problems he may have faced and solved. Isabella Gardner Stewart had the problem of loss (the death of her son caused her to nearly die of a broken heart--she started art collecting to assist in recovering from the tragedy), and she also saw a need for the evangelization of the arts in US culture (which lagged behind that in Europe). Her personal tragedy was most likely not fully mitigated, but she found a way back to passion and was fortunate enough to have the means to create an opulent world full of friendship and art. Her curatorial skills made her an artist in her own right. And what is art if not a means to inspire something else in others? Living life can be art in and of itself.

Hearst: 0, Stewart Gardner: 1

Monday, April 26, 2010

Working in the Post-Loyalty Era Chock Full of Layoffs and Job Loss

At-will employment is the only game in town—your employer has the right to lay you off or fire you at any time regardless of whether you work full time or freelance (unless you have a contract that states otherwise). The only upside is that you have the same right and can quit without cause.

It feels empowering to leave a company when it’s on your own terms. But, the knife cuts both ways. Given the state of our economy, it’s likely that at some point in your career, you’re going to get the axe.

Where did the loyalty go? It’s gone because work is about monetary profits, at every level, and not about the human connections we foster while working. This is genuinely distressing and tragic. Here’s the thing:

You have to try to get over it.

There are things you can do to feel better as you come to terms with job loss. Recognize that getting over it takes time, and a person needs to make space to feel the grief and the loss. Talk to family and friends and allow them to offer you emotional support and kindness.

Also consider the following:

Expect that no job will last forever, or maybe even a year
Dramatically alter your point of view of what it means to have a full-time job. The odds of you being at the same workplace in five years are tiny. Expect that you’re going to have to keep finding new work. As a freelancer, I live in this cycle, but more acutely. Businesses hire me for an estimated period of time which often turns out to be dramatically shorter than expected if clients put projects on hold or abandon projects altogether. I often find myself looking for new work every few months rather than every few years. This is simply a microcosm of the larger economic trend of frequent job change.

You are not your job
We all have facets of our personalities that are much broader than what gets expressed through a job. Further, I find that I’m different on every job, as job requirements and variable group dynamics bring out various aspects of my personality and skills. So, working in different environments challenges me to explore different aspects of myself and reminds me that I’m much more than the skill set I’ve been hired for. You will not be the same person you were on your next job.

Don’t be too picky
There is no such thing as a dream job. Or rather, you might find yourself in a dream job, but there will always be aspects of it that are not so dreamy. You should still try to find what you want in life, and continue to work towards that. But in the meantime, isn’t it nice to have some income so that you’re not totally freaking out about your bank account? You may not love an interim job, but maybe there are things you can learn from it, like new skills. Plus, you never know who you might meet, which leads me to my next point.

Network your ass off
Every job you have is a chance to broaden your network to help you find future work. Growing your network is a huge benefit of changing jobs. Ultimately, it’s other people who will help you find new work. There is irony in the fact that the human connection is precisely what businesses de-prioritize in the face of profits, but other people are who will save you.

Don’t underestimate the power of your personality
It’s extremely important to learn to get along well with other people. You need to be good at your job, but you equally must try to play well with others. People like being around people who are friendly and smile and encourage others. Camaraderie counts. Even if you get laid off, your network will remember that you’re likeable and fun to be around. If you are up for a position against someone who has the same or even better skills, you have a VERY good chance of getting the job simply because your reputation will precede you.

Expect no consideration
With a layoff, don’t expect kindness or conciliation from your employer. You’ll be lucky if you get severance. And they will probably make you sign something that says you won’t sue them. Even if your boss is/was your friend, they’re probably not going to be very friendly on the day you’re left go. Expect to be escorted out immediately. This feels terrible, but it’s good if you can at least be mentally prepared and accept that this might happen to you at some point in your life.

You can be expendable and good at what you do
If at all possible, don’t take a layoff personally. Here’s the thing: we’re all ultimately replaceable. On a metaphysical level, that’s not true, but on a business level, it’s completely true. Companies only care about profits at the end of the day, so none of us is safe. However, take heart: because it’s often about money, it’s not actually about YOU.

Chances are you DO have skills that are transferrable to other jobs that can be useful. Keep focused on what you are capable of and don’t internalize the belief that a layoff or even being fired means that you weren’t good at your job. We all have room for improvement, but surely there is something you know you can do well.

The world hasn’t changed, you changed
Personal responsibilities like having a mortgage or a family can make job loss or changing jobs seem more daunting, but that’s an illusion. Sure, you may have more responsibilities, but you still have the exact same chances and opportunities that someone with fewer responsibilities has. Don’t let fear close you off from taking risks that can bring you better work.

Save up for rainy days
If at all possible, have a 6 month emergency stash of cash that will cover all your living expenses in the event of a layoff. A cash cushion is ultimately what makes a layoff the most bearable.

It gets easier
I’ve been laid off twice from full time jobs, and a few times from freelance jobs that ended prematurely. It always hurts, but I’ve found that the more I’ve been laid off, the more easily I’m able to handle the situation, and I know from previous experience that if I persevere, I’m likely to find work again.

The Upside
Job loss or frequent job change (if you’re a freelancer) can help you adopt a more realistic perspective about how the capitalist world works. It sucks that the business world isn’t more humane, but the truth is that it is not, so we have to give ourselves the tools we need to protect ourselves as much as we can.

Job loss can help us come to a greater understanding that nothing in life is permanent, which creates a stronger tolerance for change. This is a perspective that we can bring to every aspect of our lives. The challenge is to live in the moment and not prematurely judge what happens to us as “bad.” It’s possible that getting away from a particular job could be a blessing in disguise.

There is actually something exciting about being left go—it means that your destiny is back in your hands to a large degree, and now is the time for you to put yourself back out there and see what the rest of the world has in store for you.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Name this dead icon

My friend John H. enumerated something I was thinking last night. See if you can figure out who he's referring to.

Name this person:
- Child star
- Early fame makes their life very difficult
- Stars in movie version of the Oz story
- Becomes a cult figure
- Cannot seem to get out from under the yoke of crass promoters
- Suffers from two decades of bad publicity
- Dies abruptly around the age of 50 under suspicious, drug-related circumstances
... while preparing for a series of comeback concerts in London
- Leaves behind three children
- Death causes outpouring of public grief.

You were thinking Judy Garland, right?

Or how about Michael Jackson?

One and the same? HMM!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

If a Digital Tree Falls, Would We Hear It?

According to an Arts Beat blog post by Roberta Smith at the New York Times, gallery exhibition cards are going extinct.

"Of all the things going the way of the Internet these days, one is the gallery exhibition announcement card. For decades this useful bit of art-world indicator has been an indispensable constant creatively deployed by artists, avidly cherished by the ephemera-obsessed and devotedly archived by museums. But lately the death knell has been sounding, each a linguistic (and attitudinal) variation on the same theme."
Trees will be saved, perhaps, but the visceral response to feeling thick paper stock in the hand and seeing a visual design that is just as easy to look at as it is to stick on the refrigerator is on its way out. This comes as no surprise, but there is some sadness in it.

On my way to the Museum of Modern Art two weeks ago, we passed by Radio City Music Hall. For the first time, I noticed that there were no posters on display--instead, promo "posters" were displayed on LCD TVs strategically integrated into the former housing for posters. This isn't it, but here's an example from Japan:

Posters are gone, never to return!

I thought of my childhood self who used to see so many posters and wished to acquire the ones for shows or movies I loved so I could hang them on my walls. Kids won't be doing much of that anymore. (Either that, or suddenly all children will have multiple LCD TVs in their bedrooms where they can change imagery at will.)

From a business perspective, I can see how it's much more cost-effective to make .jpgs, so it's no surprise we're going down this road. In terms of expediency and cost, it makes a lot of sense to go paperless.

That said, I totally feel and relate to that loss of tangible paper items. I'm hardly the first to say this, but I believe that the 20th Century will be the last great period where we will have collectible items and ephemera. Where we are now, in time, is that transitional moment--we're living on the tail end of the 20th century that still spills a bit into the 21st. We should all probably go crazy buying up more collectibles, posters and whatnot because they'll only go up in value. There aren't going to be as many items to replace them since this stuff is disappearing into a digital haze.

For those, like me, who love certain manifestations of paper, it would be easy to see the Internet as the destroyer of something much-loved. But the Internet is a kind of as an entity of its own--neither good nor bad, simply a tool we can use for good or ill purposes.

Historically, newer technology is always eclipsing the old. The written word replaced oral tradition, the printing press eliminated illuminated manuscripts, radio succumbed to TV, and so on. There's always a loss with a resulting gain that seems to tend toward an even greater ability to disseminate information to a greater number of people. That part has great potential, and is making things like the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan available for everyone to see globally-horrible footage, but publicizing a great tragedy that otherwise could have been hidden from global view by the Iranian government. Great crimes can be exposed in ways never before possible, as well as positive messages. And of course some would argue that there's also a bunch of porn and other things that are not so good.

In an objective sense, it's nearly impossible to know how to judge what is good and what is bad in terms of changing technology (and let's not forget that paper is a technology)--what seems negative to us may very well be considered normal, OK, or even good to those in another age, demographic, location, or time period. It is only those of us who are intimately familiar with posters and cards that may feel the loss. After all, who can feel the loss of something they've never experienced?

As for me, I'm a child of the 20th Century, so paper media and tangibility is meaningful and beautiful, and there is an unquestionable loss. Zeroes and ones offer nothing to connect to in a physical way. Seeing something only with our eyes on a display doesn't create the same depth of emotion as holding something in your hands, looking and feeling.

Perhaps an upside to the ephemerality of digital media is that art will become more valued--if there is less pop cultural detritus to litter our homes, maybe we'll be more willing to shell out money for one-of-a-kind works of art to beautify our existence.

But, I also know that there is still beauty to be had in other forms, some of which haven't been invented yet. And so I'll look to the past to remember what was meaningful on a personal level, and look to the future with some excitement about what technology comes next, hopeful that the benefits will outweigh the harm.

John Lennon: The NYC Years

I went with M to John Lennon: The NYC Years exhibit at the Rock N’Roll Hall of Fame Annex. Yoko Ono curated the show, which includes the photographs she took of John’s bloody glasses and his personal effects after his murder.

I did a bit of web research because I was looking for a particular quote from the show, and discovered that Yoko has been much criticized for including those items in the exhibition. I believe that those people who see exhibitionism and exploitation in such a display are running away from the truth of what happened—that murder was committed, and the loss is just as palpable now as it was 29 years ago.

This is another indication of how much of our culture seeks to avoid and dismiss great personal tragedy and violence. Looking at these artifacts brings home the personal nature of what happened to John, making him not just an icon, but a human being who was gunned down.

There is blank white canvas hanging next to these artifacts that asks people to sign their names. The canvas will be sent to President Obama along with an entreaty for stricter gun laws.

I applaud Yoko for having the courage to face all of the ugliness of John’s death and show it to other people. My takeaway was that this is a woman of great bravery.

She says:

"John, who was the king of the world and had everything any man could ever want, came back to me in a brown paper bag in the end. I want to show how many people have gone through similar tragedies."

Powerful words showing that we leave this world as we come into it and that, indeed, through that experience, we are all one.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Making Web Sites

Here today
Gone the next
Into this world and then back out
The complexity of this world
The tangibility of this world
Being born
Coming into this life
Only to leave
Grandpa fought in the great war
That was his time
Twisted arm afflicted
His death from disease
Years later
He saw radio
He saw tv
The internet a mystery
We sit in a meeting today
Ad agency life
Working on a project
Could be the future
Could be the past
But only we can be here because we are now
Or only special because we exist
But who is tomorrow
What is tomorrow
When we are no more?
Can’t be lonely in the present because everyone is here
Until an exit we can’t predict
Death is any time between now and a life span
See you again
In an office chair
In a café
In a cave

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Viability of Acidophilus and Probiotics

Like many of you, I lay awake at night wondering if my probiotic supplements are effectively populating my intestines with viable strains of good bacteria.

I read an article online a few years ago that said an easy way to test viability is to open an acidophilus capsule and mix it in 8 oz. of milk and let it sit out on your counter overnight. If the milk is curdled in the morning, the strain is viable and you know you have an effective product.

I did this test in 2004 with Metagenics Ultra Flora Plus Dairy Free capsules , and the milk was indeed a bit chunky and curdled the next day. It was viable!

I was getting my monthly supply of Metagenics Ultra Flora Plus at Invite Health. Suddenly, Metagenics has decided to no longer sell its product through retail outlets, which means you can only get them if you see one of their "authorized" doctors. This is bullshit. Probiotics are not controlled substances. I shouldn't have to spend money to go to a doctor just so I can buy this brand even if they are considered the "best" in probiotics (few brands offer 15 billion live organisms in one tiny capsule--most other brands are perhaps 1 million per capsule).

Now that my probiotic supply had been cut off, I needed other options.

So, I have started the expensive undertaking of testing various brands you might find at a place like Whole Foods to see if any of them are good.

The big problem with probiotics is that they can be viable at the time of manufacture, but many of them require refrigeration, and if they don't stay refrigerated while in transit to the retail outlet, most of the probiotics will die, even if they are refrigerated once they get to their destination. This means that you're paying $30/bottle for nothing.

There are some brands that claim to be shelf-stable and don't need refrigeration, but I've always been a bit skeptical of that. I included those in my little sample as well.

Here are my results:

Metagenics Ultra Flora Plus DF Capsules
I re-tested my last bottle of my brand of choice and surprise, surprise! This time around, the milk was NOT CURDLED AT ALL! Nothing! There was no change in smell, color or texture. I had a bum batch! This made me wonder how many times I've taken this product over the past four years and it was having no effect. On the upside, it made me feel more open to trying other brands.

Nutrition Now PB 8
This is a "shelf stable" brand that does not need refrigerations and claims to have 14 billion bacteria per a 2 capsule serving. If there was anything active in this puppy, it sure wasn't barking. The milk was as normal as always. I don't think I'll bother with this brand again.

Sedona Labs iFLora Multi-Probiotic Formula
Another shelf-stable option. Finally, a little action! Even though the milk didn't look terribly curdled, it had a distinctly different smell--much more like buttermilk, which suggested to me that something was going on. I wasn't overly impressed, but at least it wasn't a total bust.

Renew Life Ultimate Flora Critical Care 50 Billion
Ding! Ding! Ding! WE HAVE A WINNER!

See that picture at the top of this post? THAT is Ultimate Flora Critical Care in action--it caused a thick, disgusting, almost colloidal suspension of gelatinous goo and it smelled like curdled milk. This shit works! And I can also attest that it's doing something because my stomach has been feeling mildly rumbly after taking it, which means that something good is going on. Those kinds of symptoms will stop in a few days as a person's body acclimates to the new flora.

NOTE: This brand requires refrigeration. I bought it from Whole Foods in Columbus Circle--clearly, they're transporting their refrigerated goods properly.

All of this cost me a mere $120 to test. UGH. But, I'd rather know that what I'm taking is going to work, and I hope this can help other people, too.

Your intestines are the first line of defense of your immune support. Take care of them. Here's to a happy intestinal life. Sweet dreams!